January 31, 2008

This Week in My Classes (January 31, 2008)

This week I've been preoccupied with graduate admissions--about which, for obvious reasons, I won't say more here, except that it is a process that prompts much reflection on the state of the profession and the discipline and on the best way forward for a department such as ours. But of course the rest of business goes on, including my two classes, and this in spite of the best efforts of an evil maritime winter storm Sunday night and into Monday that put a modest 5 cm. or so of snow on the ground but then followed up with equal amounts of ice pellets and then a day of freezing rain...it was an awful mess.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we got to Sherlock Holmes at last. Our sample was "The Blue Carbuncle," particularly delightful for its infamous close reading of a hat:
"Then, what clue could you have as to his identity?"
"Only as much as we can deduce."
"From his hat?"
"But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered
"Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to
the individuality of the man who has worn this article?"
(curious? read the rest here)
My main interest was in placing Holmes into the larger history of detective fiction that I have been laying out, as well as examining the story as exemplary of some important characteristics of a 'Great Detective' mystery. We talked, for instance, about the appeal of a 'reasoning, thinking machine' such as Holmes in the particular historical and social context in which he was created, as well as the continuing appeal of characters who promise to interpret even the most unyielding of data and render it amenable to human solutions (I brought up House M.D., for example, in many respects, especially in its earlier episodes, a kind of revisiting of or homage to the Holmes mystique). We also talked about the relative lightheartedness with which the crime is treated (necessary, perhaps, for us to enjoy the process of detection as a process, even a game), and about the limits the form of such a story places on characterization, a problem that will become more acute as we move to Agatha Christie next week. The appeal of the detective series clearly emerges at least in part from the opportunity it provides to get to know at least one person very well, to watch that character change and develop over time and perhaps also in response to the crimes that he or she solves. One small cool thing that I was also able to do, thanks to the amazing resource that is the internet, is play an audio clip of Arthur Conan Doyle himself explaining the origins of his great character (you can listen too, if you go here and click on the link provided).

In the seminar on the Victorian 'woman question,' we have begun working our way through East Lynne. Each time I have taught this book so far I become preoccupied with the problem of literary evaluation. Is the book as badly written and constructed as I think? How far are the standards and comparisons I would invoke to defend this judgment defensible in any general way? How far is my own reading affected by knowing at the outset that East Lynne has no standing as great literature? Do I forgive trite or awkward or dull moments in other books for no good reason? I've tried to get some discussion going about this here before; I'd still be interested in anyone's comments, especially about the sample excerpts I posted. I certainly have never regretted assigning the novel, because teaching literature has many purposes and goals, one of which is (or at least can be) gaining some understanding of literary history, including the books that were bestsellers at a particular time--an exercise which for students as well can helpfully spark questions about literary merit. (If all they ever read is the really good stuff, they won't necessarily grasp why it is considered the really good stuff, after all, or have concrete examples of alternatives to challenge the idea of "really good stuff" for themselves.)

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